Resurrecting death: anatomical art in the cabinet of Dr. Frederik Ruysch.

Author:Hansen, Julie V.

The skills of 17th-century Dutch surgeon/anatomist Frederick Ruysch has been depicted in two paintings of anatomy lessons by Adrian Backer and Jan van Neck. Backer's painting shows Ruysch demonstrating the inguinal canal of a cadaver's thigh, while van Neck's work shows Ruysch demonstrating the blood vessels of a newborn baby's umbilical cord and placenta. These two paintings dramatized... (see full summary)


The theatrical display of new science and empirical investigation as "strange and miraculous" was characteristic of early modern European scientific discourse.(1) In professional forums ranging from public demonstrations of anatomy to the dissected curiosities displayed in the Wunderkammern, staged medical performances were designed to attract viewers' attention and to assert professional legitimacy.(9) This essay will examine two monumental paintings of anatomy lessons by Adrian Backer and Jan van Neck within the context of the anatomical cabinet in late seventeenth-century Holland [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1, 2 OMITTED]. These paintings, part of a series of portraits commissioned by the Amsterdam Chirurgijnsgilde, or Guild of Surgeons, between 1603 and 1758, valorize the skill and lifework of Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731).

A prominent surgeon, obstetrician, and anatomist from 1666 to 1731, Ruysch was the chief anatomist of the Amsterdam surgeons' guild for almost sixty years.(3) During this time, he was responsible for creating a new aesthetic of anatomical demonstration in Amsterdam. By means of his innovations in embalming and preservation techniques, Ruysch contributed greatly to the study of the anatomized body. His influence on the artistic development of the anatomy lesson genre as represented in these two paintings will be the primary focus of this paper.

The paintings were hung with five others, including Rembrandt's famous Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp, 1632, and Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman, 1656 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 3, 4 OMITTED], in the formal meeting rooms of the surgeons' guild headquarters. They commemorated the public anatomical demonstrations usually held in the city during the winter months, and they served as constant reminders to their audience of the prestige accorded to the guild.(4) This audience included guild members, magistrates, and city governors. In addition, public lectures and examinations for the certification of junior barber-surgeons and midwives were held in these same chambers.

The two Ruysch portraits have previously been discussed only within the tradition of general medical imagery in Holland, or in terms of their debt to Rembrandt's stylistic innovations.(5) My argument will move beyond these investigations of iconography and style to explore the social reality that constituted the pictorial mode and ideological content of the anatomical-lesson genre.

Anatomical study of human cadavers was not legalized in the Netherlands until 1555, when dissection was allowed only of male bodies.(6) The public dissection of female bodies did not become commonplace in Holland until late in the seventeenth century.(7) The Dutch municipal government acted on its belief that anatomy lessons should not be placed solely in the hands of the surgeons' guilds. Instead, they appointed one doctor to the post of Praelector Chirurgiae et Anatomie, or city anatomist. This man had the legal right to dissect a certain number of corpses per year. At least one of these dissections was required to be open to the public.

In viewing the opening up of a corpse, the witness must suppress certain natural reactions to the willful mutilation of a human body, as well as the physical manifestations of decaying flesh. In seventeenth-century Holland, a cultural paradigm was constructed whereby the narrative of the anatomy lesson was fictionalized and aestheticized. Representations of anatomical practice adopted the prevailing themes of emblematic morality, and were often presented in the guise of modern science. However, this apparent realism runs counter to the high degree of artifice also found in the paintings. Examples discussed below include outright anatomical inaccuracies, the alteration of stages in the usual order of dissection, and changing the age of a subject. Both the ritual of the annual public dissections and the paintings commissioned to document them were theatrically cloaked in the pictorial guise typically used to depict large-scale historical events. This resulted in an elevation of status both for the practice of anatomy and for the guild representing its practitioners. In this way, the act of dissecting the human body and its representation in art were made presentable as a noble enterprise for public consumption.

Adriaen Backer's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch of 1670 depicts a youthful Ruysch demonstrating the inguinal canal on the delicately flayed left thigh of a cadaver [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].(8) The picture is set in the surgeons' guild theater, then located in the former St. Margaret's Chapel on the Nes.(9) Ruysch is surrounded by six surgeons, each of whom paid for the privilege of being included in the portrait: three of their names can still be read as inscriptions on the right pilaster.(10) The statues in the background have been identified as Apollo and Asclepius, the ancient gods of medicine.(11) These classical figures create a striking visual contrast with their seventeenth-century counterparts, who appear as modern medical practitioners acknowledging their humanist legacy.

There is a long tradition in Northern art of large-scale commemorative group portrait paintings. Yet it was Rembrandt, in his Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp, who defined the anatomy lesson genre as a subject in itself. Earlier paintings in the Amsterdam series, such as Aert Pieters's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egberts of 1603 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED], cannot be differentiated from similar military-company banquet paintings such as those by Frans Hals.(12) The anatomized corpse is merely substituted for the stocked banquet table. Rembrandt revolutionized this subject by making the witnessing of the dissection the primary subject of the painting. Tulp's onlookers are actively engaged in viewing or contemplating the issues raised by the anatomist's lesson, and they direct the viewer's gaze to the body on the table.

Backer's circular composition and diagonal placement of the idealized, robust body of the corpse is indebted both to Rembrandt's earlier depiction of the subject and to his own knowledge of Italian sources. The intensely theatrical character of Backer's painting is also entirely in keeping with other representations of Dutch corporations from this period, which picture members in ceremonial roles at annual parades, banquets, and business meetings to review accounts.(13)

Jan van Neck's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch with an Infant, 1683, depicts Ruysch demonstrating the blood vessels of the umbilical cord and placenta on the well-preserved body of an oversized newborn child [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. At the far right of the painting, opposite the circle of attendant guild members, stands the figure of a young boy holding an infant's prepared skeleton. He is identified in guild records as the anatomist's son Hendrik Ruysch.(14) Hendrik, aged twenty at the time of the painting, became a doctor and anatomist like his renowned father. The artistic decision to portray the grown Hendrik as a boy was probably intended to provide an adolescent link between the adult doctors and the two dead infants (the corpse on the table and the skeleton that Hendrik holds). Under his arm, Hendrik has a black brimmed hat in the same style as that worn by his father, an indication, perhaps, of his lineage and his future profession; he was the only one of Ruysch's sons to survive childhood and enter his father's profession.

Like Rembrandt, Backer and van Neck used various compositional devices to heighten the theatricality of the settings: for example, each employs a dramatic chiaroscuro to enhance the emotionally charged atmosphere and lend intimacy to the scene. Furthermore, both artists have chosen somber, almost monochromatic, palettes of black, brown, ocher, and white. A vivid blood-red, restricted to the site of the incision, distinguishes the animated surgeons from the lifeless object of their study on the table. This is a curious paradox, since the realistic red color signifying living tissue is used here to designate the inanimate corpse.

But are the corpses here really meant to signify death? The physical signs of putrefaction and corruption so obvious in Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp - rigor mortis, blackened lips and toes, yellowed flesh - are absent in the paintings of Ruysch. In Backer's and van Neck's scenes, death has been downplayed while the beauty of the human body has been emphasized. With their flushed skin tones and languid poses, the corpses depicted in the two pictures appear more like sleeping or swooning patients on surgery tables than dead bodies subjected to dissection.

Public anatomy lessons were sponsored and performed annually in Amsterdam, Leiden, and Delft.(15) While the first few rows of the theater were reserved for magistrates and members of the surgeons' guild, the general population was welcome to purchase tickets for the remaining seats in order to see "secrets of Nature revealed by God." A Latin poem written in 1646 by Caspar Barlaeus, "On the Anatomical Table," theatrically describes such unveilings of nature to Dutch citizens:

Here lies spread out Man and offers to all the World spectacles of his pitiful state. . . . Brow, finger, kidney, tongue, heart, lung, brain, bones, hand, afford a lesson to you, the Living. You may examine here publicly that which is healthy, and that which is diseased. . . . While this you contemplate in the remains of the defunct, learn that it is through God that you live hale, teach this to yourself.(16)

Besides serving as an important cultural and scientific center throughout the year, the anatomy theater hosted every Christmas a month-long series of lectures and debates on medical topics.(17) While demonstrations included the vivisection of animals and experiments with microscopes, the anatomical display of the human cadaver remained the main...

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